The past few years have been both illuminating and near-impossible for parents. But beyond the shadow of Covid, among the countless systemic problems facing caregivers at work, companies have a rising mission-critical population on their hands—one they may not even have considered given the trajectory of the last few years. Enter: The Sandwich Generation, otherwise known as adults simultaneously caring for aging parents while either raising young children or financially supporting grown children.
The world of advocating for caregivers at work is one I live in every day as the co-founder of Superkin, an advisory firm helping companies design more modern and holistic support for parent and caregiver employees. But the demand for more intentional and robust employee benefits for caregivers is becoming a primary challenge in workplaces of all sizes and industries around the country.
What is the Sandwich Generation?
The Sandwich Generation is the 11 million people (and counting) who care for aging parents while also raising young children or financially supporting grown children. They have become one of the fastest growing employee segments. In fact, according to AARP, more than 1 in 5 adults are now unpaid family caregivers. And, as millennials are set to become the largest cohort in the workforce by 2025, they’re also gaining ground as the largest cohort within the sandwich generation. Millennials’ profiles are different from previous caregivers: they waited to get married and start families. So while they’re in their peak earning years, they’re also managing care for parents and caring for younger kids. As 10,000 baby boomers turn 70 every day, it’s the perfect storm.
How the Sandwich Generation impacts society
While the Sandwich Generation is unprecedented, it’s not totally unexplained. There are several elements at play that made this specific combination of caregiving so prevalent:
Today, 60% of households are dual-income, compared to only 25% in the 1960s
Women are more employed and their salaries are more influential than ever. According to Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood survey report, almost half of today’s mothers (47%) are the primary breadwinners, while also shouldering the majority of the unpaid labor at home. In fact, the majority of primary income-earning moms (70%) are responsible for scheduling medical appointments for everyone in the family, even those who say they have partners who share household duties equally—these moms are creating and managing calendars, children’s schedules and activities, and coordinating childcare on top of being the primary breadwinners.
Traditionally, a single-income household with a male breadwinner meant mothers worked within the home, tackling childcare and all household labor without much paid help. Now, with the majority of both parents in the workforce, capacities and schedules are stretched thinner than ever, as the infinite domestic labor required to raise a family is added to full-time work outside the home without the presence of a “designated domestic partner.” It’s a win-lose: women are pursuing their careers and education at historic levels, but nothing has been done to alleviate or subsidize the amount of unpaid labor that remains necessary regardless of who has time to do it.
The current cost to raise a child through age 17 is $310,000
The financial impact of having and raising children is at a historic high, and eldercare services and facilities also at peak levels. Families who may have easily afforded a variety of different childcare options in the past may now be paying top dollar for a situation that doesn’t even offer coverage for a full working day. Similarly, the Sandwich Generation is often tasked with navigating the cost and logistics of securing eldercare for aging parents, an expense that many might be financially ill-equipped to pay for. We’re told to save for retirement, but what about after-school programs and summer camps to supplement daycare hours? And where does the money for memory care or home health support come from when a retired parent is on a modest, fixed income?
All of these things combined means there’s now one massive group of employees who will now require more empathetic leadership, workday flexibility (both in-person and online) and systemic corporate support than ever before.
The impact of caregiving in the workplace
One of the most heartbreaking experiences associated with the sandwich generation is many say they suffer in silence. Amy S., SVP at a Fortune 500 company reveals, “It’s one thing to be a working mom. Parents bond over pictures of kids, commiserate about sleep schedules and kid stories can be funny and relatable. But when your mom is in the ICU for 3 weeks, and you’re navigating where and how she’ll live afterward, it can bring on shame or guilt at work, like ‘isn’t there someone else to do that work?’” Managers often are in the dark that their employees are raising kids and caring for aging parents. In fact, a recent HBS survey shows that nearly 75% of employees have some sort of caregiving responsibility, while those in leadership positions think it’s only 25%.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on providing support for employees who are responsible for both their children and aging parents. The Sandwich Generation is carrying effectively double the workload and mental load when you account for sick days, accompanying family members to appointments, continuing care, while also balancing a career and personal life. Without adequate support from employers, many in the Sandwich Generation feel that managing the financial, emotional and physical burden of caring for their children and aging parents often feels impossible. Even with her mom in the hospital nearby, Amy S., said she felt invisible. She was shocked with the overwhelming emotions that emerged as she managed her mom’s sudden diagnosis. “Parenting your parents comes with some heavy baggage that you’re hardly ever prepared for.”
How leaders and companies can support the Sandwich Generation
Retention heavily relies on the way teams react in times of employee crisis. By proactively creating a system now that can absorb and accommodate the growing flexibility caregivers in the Sandwich Generation will need, leaders will have the ability to say “Do whatever you need” the next time a team member needs to step up for their family. Because flexibility is nothing without the freedom and encouragement to actually use it.
1. Track caregiving status
When you think about championing diversity and inclusivity on teams, the caregiver identity can’t be overlooked. Tracking caregiving status as part of a team’s demographics is a good place to start.Today, only 12% of companies are currently measuring this. It’s also important to understand the massive degree to which caregiving responsibilities can vary, all the way from playing defense against sniffles during cold and flu season to adapting to cognitive or physical disabilities.
2. Check in regularly with your employees
Create space to have conversations about the changing needs of team members. This check in doesn’t have to be an hour every week, but just enough to understand what your team’s changing bandwidth may look like. Providing straightforward encouragement for team members to take the time they need for doctor appointments (and respecting when they are out-of-office) is a great first step.
3. Institutionalize flexibility
Don’t treat flexibility like a perk. Access to flexibility at work shouldn’t hinge on whether you have a decent manager or not. Employers should be intentional about the way they offer and facilitate work environments. Caregivers are more likely to need to take time off, come in late, leave early or check in on someone at home in the middle of the day.
4. Socialize benefits that support caregivers
Programs like FMLA and PFL exist to protect caregiving employees. Employers should circulate their policies around paid family leave and other similar programs so that everyone has equal access to the information. Have employee resource groups (ERGs) or are considering adding a caregiver employee group? Now is a great time. If you want to make sure your company is up to date with policies, benefits, ERGs or think it needs a 2023 refresh, Superkin can help.
5. Train your people leaders to adapt
Workplaces don’t look the way they did 10 years ago. Encourage leaders to create a formalized plan for coverage when a colleague has to take time away for caregiving—whether that’s for a few days or an extended period of time (and per #4 above, socialize it!). The sooner your managers feel confident in their ability to recognize and support Sandwich Generation employees through transparent, empathetic leadership, the better. How to advocate for yourself at work
The sooner your managers feel confident in their ability to recognize and support Sandwich Generation employees through transparent, empathetic leadership, the better.
How to advocate for yourself at work
Feeling the strain of being part of the Sandwich Generation? Even if you’re not caring for aging parents along with children, there are plenty of ways to start asking for more of what you need as a caregiver who works outside the home. You might not feel totally comfortable talking with your employer about this, but making even small changes in pursuit of supporting caregiving employees is still progress.
1. Be honest and upfront about your caregiving responsibilities
As much as you feel you can share what’s going on at home, keeping your direct manager up-to-date can go a long way in getting the support you need. And entire teams can feel the benefits of less pressure and more compassion when transparency around individual capacity is encouraged.
2. Be mindful when planning team check-ins or other key meetings
If your regularly-scheduled meetings conflict with “traditional caregiving hours” like school drop-off and pick-up, consider speaking to your manager to shift to a time block that’s mutually agreeable.
3. Use the resources available to you
Do your employee-sponsored benefits include mental health coverage? Legal counsel for things like estate planning? FMLA or PTO days you aren’t maxing out? All these elements are part of your compensation, and you shouldn’t feel guilty using them. Separately, if FMLA isn’t an option, look into state or local policies or have a sit-down with your organization to see if something can be done (flexible workplace, reduced hours, etc).
4. Ask for help when you need it
It can be hard to admit when you are overwhelmed, but raising the flag early and often is crucial to avoid being overwhelmed when balancing work and caregiving.
5. Nominate your workplace for a caregiver-support audit
Superkin was created to guide organizations towards strategic, sustainable solutions for supporting caregivers at work. If your workplace needs a little extra love in that department, you can nominate your org anonymously for Superkin to reach out to with some tactical tips.
The Sandwich Generation becoming the majority of our workforce has the potential to create a wave of positive change. In order to recruit and retain today’s top talent, companies will be faced with a rising need for flexible schedules, compassionate management and employee-sponsored benefits related to child and eldercare. And, the organizations who adapt appropriately will pave the way for a more sustainable future for parent and caregiver employees—a future that pays off for companies and employees alike.